Thursday, December 12, 2013

Dirty Laundry

Judi Dench and Steve Coogan in Philomena

I saw a headline on one of the entertainment sites a few days ago that posed the question of whether or not Stephen Frears's new film, Philomena (2013) was anti-Catholic. Given the subject matter of the film--the sorry history of the Magdalene laundries is central to its narrative--I'd say it's not anti-Catholic enough. This film goes out of its way to be understanding, but I can't imagine the headspace that permits its heroine to forgive. I'm much more inclined to less Christian reaction, myself, especially given that this is a "true story," as the saying goes.

The story here follows Philomena Lee, who having become pregnant as a teen, is committed by her parents to Roscrea Convent, where "fallen" women are imprisoned and where their children are born and put up for adoption against their mothers wills. The women themselves are put into an indentured servitude "to pay for the cost" of their deliveries, working seven days a week for four years. Fifty years later, Philomena's story comes to the attention of Martin Sixsmith, formerly a press secretary for the government, and now looking to return to journalism. He swallows his professional pride (he sneers at "human interest" stories) and agrees to take up the trail of Philomena's lost son. The trail leads them first back to Roscrea, which "isn't like it used to be" according to Philomena. The nuns stonewall them anyway. After that, the trail leads them to the United States, where they discover the ultimate fate of Anthony, who grew up to become an official in Republican politics in spite of being gay. The last act of the film leads them back to Roscrea, where Sixsmith intends to vent his rage at the injustice done to Philomena and her son. But Philomena has different ideas...

Judi Dench and Steve Coogan in Philomena

Audiences are so used to Judi Dench as formidable grand dames that it's almost playing against type for her to play such an ordinary person as Philomena Lee. Philomena is an average Irishwoman, raised, as Sixsmith puts it, on "The Daily Mail and romance novels." She's downright ordinary, which is something that chafes at Sixsmith's own self-image. Sixsmith is a "Oxbridge" product, full of high falutin' sarcasm and condescension. Where Philomena is deeply religious, Sixsmith is an atheist. At a very basic level, this is a familiar kind of film: it's a "wunza" buddy comedy (wunza tough reporter from the big city, wunza little old lady from Ireland...). It's a road comedy, too. Most of the comedic elements seem imposed by the persona of Steve Coogan, who wrote the film in addition to playing Sixsmith, but Stephen Frears's best films have always had a streak of nasty humor in them. The humor in this film sometimes seems cruel to Philomena and the hoi poloi, but it turns around in the end. Philomena isn't a saint, but she's lit from within by a common kind of goodness that ultimately shames Sixsmith. Coogan, for his part, demonstrates a dramatic range that he hasn't brought to film before.

This is a film that really shows off the possibilities of digital cinematography in a way that big special effects movies don't. This is a film with a wide range of visual moods, from the murk of Ireland to the rough landscapes of Northern England to the nighttime grandeur of Washington D.C. to the autumnal Virginia landscape to the craggy, wrinkled texture of Judi Dench's face. It's a variety of settings that would have foiled a digital camera five years ago, but here, the Arri Alexa shows its dynamic range. This is a handsome movie that doesn't make a lot of its handsomeness. This isn't a film that's going to bludgeon you with its technique, but sometimes, it's technique is subtly dazzling. I watch a lot of documentaries these days and one technique that recent documentataries have adopted is the unattributed reconstruction. The footage of Sarah Polley's mom in Stories We Tell, for instance. Philomena inverts this. There's a great deal of home-movie footage of Philomena's son, and much of this footage is real home movie footage of the real Michael Hess (as her son was named after his adoption). The use of this footage in the second half of the film is unexpectedly poignant.

Judi Dench and Steve Coogan in Philomena

The thing I love best about Philomena is the way it spins its way from one central horror spawned by institutional religion into a more generalized one that it elides so subtly that some audiences might not see it. That Philomena's son was gay and died of AIDS years before, leaving his partner bereft, is an indictment of the (mostly religious) attitudes that spawn homophobic discrimination. There's a scene late in the film when Philomena needs the release of confession. She forces Sixsmith to stop at a church on the road and once inside, she can't bring herself to beg for absolution. What moral authority does a church that perpetrates the monstrous things this film depicts have to grant absolution? this scene asks. When the tables are turned in the end, it's Philomena in position to grant absolution to The Church, which she does. "I don't want to hate anyone," she tells Sixsmith. Sixsmith isn't so magnanimous. The dichotomy between Philomena and Sixsmith provides the film with two equally valid consciences. Sixsmith in his atheist humanism can't bring himself to the same kind of forgiveness, and, you know? That's as valid and understandable and even laudable as Philomena's absolution. It doesn't speak well of my own Christian charity (hah!) that I tend to side with Sixsmith. I admire Philomena and her capacity to forgive, but some things seem to me to be beyond the pale.

But that's just me.

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